O Muse! Sing in me and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all the ways of contending, a wanderer, harried for years on end…
The night he knocked on Molly Hooper's door the air seemed frail as if weary of holding up the vast quantities of sky. The darkness was immeasurable and tempestuous, and the rain was as thin as the sheet of a sail. The sound the knock made was tiny in that great darkness, and it took her a while to get to the door, and yet when it opened there came such light and warmth from inside that his eyes burnt with it.
Molly gasped, and clasped her hands to her mouth. "Oh my God," she whispered. She was wearing her pyjamas and a dressing gown but he barely seemed aware of her apparel. She had put on weight, a pound or two since he'd last seen her, but otherwise she looked almost exactly the same. "It's you!"
"Yes. Can I come in?"
"Yes…yes, of course. God, I barely recognised you."
The door widened, and he tentatively stepped forward onto lush wine-dark carpet, feeling the unfamiliar softness of it underneath the heel of his shoes. He looked around at Molly's flat – a clean, homely sort of place, with potted plants on the window ledge and watercolour paintings on the walls. There were a few photos too, mostly of Molly at various stages of her life or with friends and family. The bookshelf was filled with Jane Austen; the table littered with forms not yet signed. A fat ginger cat was asleep in a basket next to the telly. The flat smelled of toast and radiators, and he breathed it in, closing his eyes for a moment. Then he turned round and looked at her. Her eyes wavered as she looked him up and down, taking in his appearance.
He didn't have strength in him to argue. He cricked his neck and collapsed down on the soft sofa, feeling like an old man. He closed his eyes, and he could hear her move into the kitchen and put the kettle on. When he opened them again, she was nudging a cup of warm tea into his hands. He didn't want it, but took it and sipped it. It didn't taste right. He drank it anyway.
Molly sat down on a beanbag opposite him and watched him like he was an endangered animal in a glass case. "Where were you?"
"I've been on the Eurostar all night," he said, his voice scratching at his throat as it clawed its way up. "Haven't slept for nearly…" A quick calculation. "Thirty eight hours." He took another gulp of tea and his tongue tingled with the heat.
"You know that's not what I meant."
He didn't reply to that. He watched the steady rise and fall of the cat's stomach.
"Everyone thought you were dead."
"No they didn't," he said quickly, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand. "You didn't."
She smiled patiently. "I know. That's why I gave you my address. You could have called, though."
He laughed, spitting it out through his teeth. "Yes, that would have been helpful, wouldn't it? Hello, I'm alive, only now I'm not because the people after me have traced my call and shot me in the back of the head."
She frowned at his tone, and he tried to steady his breathing. "Sorry."
"John thought you were dead. He still does."
"You think I don't know that? That was the plan. He had to."
Molly didn't say anything. She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and held the mug with both hands like a small child. After a moment she said, "But it's over now."
It wasn't a question, but he still answered it: "Yes."
"Everything's gone; everything's…taken care of."
"You're back for good."
He sighed. "Yes."
There was a moment of silence. Then, the inevitable: "What happened, Sherlock?"
Sherlock Holmes leant back against the pillow, and closed his eyes.
The smell was disgusting. People were laid sprawled across the floor stagnating in their own pungent clouds of filth. The wooden floor was dirty, the air tainted with the distinct odour of stale urine and vomit. The windows had been papered over with thick layers of brown tape, and a single flickering lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. A cockroach darted across one sleeping man's hand, and he barely twitched. The roach paused by a discarded needle and then crawled atop a plate of something that had once been edible but was now covered with a thick layer of mould.
Sherlock shivered at the sight as he gazed blankly at the puckered arms and legs of the sleeping men: about nine in total. In a corner a young girl, barely older than eighteen, stirred from atop a clump of pillows and blinked at him. She grinned dreamily and mumbled something slurred in Dutch. When she had finished speaking he nodded, even though he had no idea what secrets she might have confessed. She smiled a satisfied smile, and then lolled back against the pillows, her eyes closed.
He ran a hand through his lemon-yellow hair. Then, as quietly as possible, he stepped over the varying limbs that criss-crossed the floor, broken glass and needles snapping underneath the soles of his shoes, until he got to the stairs that led to the second floor of the building. The wood of the floor was rotting, and the steps felt as if they would give way under him. The walls were stained with large patches of damp. He took in every one of these details and filed them safely away in his mind for future reference.
When he reached the door at the top of the stairs, he didn't even stop to pause before pushing it open. It gave way without a struggle.
The room upstairs was nearly as dingy as the one below, but with a square of light flooding in from an open window. The man within was short, with a rotund stomach and thinning hair. Unhappily married, with a string of ongoing affairs – if you could call them that. No children. A cat. Alcoholic. He'd been back in Amsterdam for two days now and he'd been drinking steadily ever since. He turned and fixed Sherlock with curious eyes.
"Who are you?" he asked, in accented English. Used to dealing with Western strangers, then. He was definitely the man Sherlock was looking for.
"You must be Ambroos Zylstra," he smiled, and held out his hand. Zylstra looked at it warily for a moment like it was some kind of great insect, but then took it. His handshake was weak. "I've heard a lot about you."
"To whom do I own the honor?"
"Nick Barnes," Sherlock replied with an easy smile. Zylstra dropped his hand.
"I hope you don't mind me saying, Mr. Barnes, that I have not once had the pleasure of hearing about you."
Sherlock shrugged. "We had a mutual acquaintance."
He looked the man right in the eye, and felt the immediate understanding buzz between them. Zylstra clapped him on the shoulder like a brother, and it took Sherlock an inordinate amount of effort not to flinch at the unwanted contact. "I see! You were a friend of Jim's, yes?"
"Poor, unfortunate man," said Zylstra, shaking his head from side to side. "What a way to die."
"Yes," Sherlock sneered. "Poor Jim."
Zylstra took no notice of his tone. "I hear he was after someone, but I don't read the papers much." He wandered over to a cabinet on the other side of the room, and withdrew a bottle of red wine and two dusty glasses. He uncorked the bottle with his fingers, poured out two drinks of almost identical volume and handed one to his guest.
"To Jim," he toasted solemnly, and tossed back the glass in one. He sighed and smacked his lips. Sherlock smiled politely, and pretended to take a sip.
"So, Mr. Barnes, what brings you to Amsterdam?"
"And what business would that be?"
"I like to think it's in a similar vein to yours, Mr. Zylstra. I was hoping to take over from Jim after he died, but…"
"This is bad news. It would have been a great pleasure to work with you. Still, if you are acquainted with Jim you must have met the man who fills his shoes, yes?"
"I am afraid I have not had the opportunity. I know next to nothing about him."
"His name is…ah, Moran. Sebastian Moran." Zylstra screwed up his face and scratched his nose with a spidery finger. "A nice man, but impatient. He wants to make changes which cannot yet be made. These things take time."
Sherlock feigned another sip. "Indeed."
"Still, it is nice to be doing business again. For a month or so I worried our relationship would be strained. But I sent a cargo out this morning – very nice, high quality. You are not enjoying your wine, Mr. Barnes?"
Sherlock was somewhat taken aback by the flawless change of topic, but restrained a blink of surprise. It would not do to ruin the illusion at such a crucial point.
"It is excellent. But I do not like to drink while on business, you understand."
"Ah. Of course. Then I hope you will not mind me taking another."
Zylstra poured out a half-glass, but then tutted as he realized the bottle was now empty. He turned back to the cabinet to retrieve a second, and Sherlock grasped the opportunity with both hands to retrieve the small tablet from his pocket and silently drop it into the glass. It fizzed for a moment before dissolving completely. Zylstra, his hands shaking, turned back and filled the rest of the glass up.
"To your health, Mr. Barnes," he grinned, and then took a great gulp and set the glass back down on the table. Sherlock returned the smile.
"And to yours," he said. "It is excellent wine, Mr. Zylstra. I can understand why you drink it so much. But then again, alcohol does tend to dull the senses, don't you agree?"
Zylstra frowned. "Excuse me?"
"Oh, come now. You must, otherwise you wouldn't have let a complete stranger into your den and taken his word on everything he said."
"I am afraid I do not understand you."
Sherlock smiled. "But I think you do. Your pulse is quickening and your hands are beginning to sweat just a little bit. You are beginning to find it just a little difficult to breathe. In approximately thirty seconds you will be unconscious. I wouldn't worry yourself, though. You will wake up eventually. Of course, by then the police will have been informed of your whereabouts, your cargo ship will have been detained and you will be in hospital recovering from a heart attack and preparing for a very long stay in prison. You will also have forgotten everything about our meeting. Sometimes medicine is so useful, isn't it, and I'm sure the people downstairs will appreciate me giving you a taste of yours. But then again, I suppose all of this will already have crossed your mind."
Zylstra shuddered once, and then collapsed down onto the arm chair, his face pale and his breathing ragged. The glass in his hand slipped, and shattered on the floor.
Sherlock watched him for a moment. Then he turned and left the room as quickly as he could, repeating the name Sebastian Moran over and over in his mind.
Sebastian Moran was thirty two years old, the same age as Moriarty had been, and lived like his old boss somewhere in the bowels of Soho. He'd been brought up in Surrey by his single mother, done poorly in school and joined the army aged eighteen. He'd been a sniper, dishonourably discharged seven years ago, but the event had been swept under a rug made of concrete and so was impossible to unearth. Unlike his previous employer, Moran had no qualms with being famous – whereas 'Moriarty' was a name nobody spoke, 'Moran' was free knowledge among those in the know. This was quite probably due to the fact that Moran was, up until this point, a complete unknown. The rest was silence.
It had taken nearly two weeks for Sherlock to gather the limited information he had; a fortnight that consisted of sitting in inexpensive hotel rooms picking over newspaper articles and websites like carrion, sent to him from various reliable sources. Since Moriarty's death, things had seemed mostly quiet, but now it was beginning again – minor bombings, small assassinations, unremarkable deaths. It seemed Moran was eager to make a name for himself. It had started with Zylstra and now Sherlock's dogged trail had led him here to make his acquaintance with David Willoughby.
It was thus that he found himself in Beirut with a bag full of fake papers and a cool evening wind against his shoulders. He drained the lukewarm bottle of water in his hand and then tossed it into a nearby bin. He was glad the hot sun had smoothed over with the coming night – none of his family had ever been partial to warmer climates and he was no exception. The suit he was wearing was scratching his skin as it was and his hair felt heavy from the red dye he had coloured it with a few hours previously. The thick-rimmed glasses pressed against the bridge of his nose.
The door to the British Embassy was guarded by a heavy-set man with strong eyebrows who glared at Sherlock as he advanced on him with practised graceful movements.
"You on the list?" the man asked, tapping on a clipboard with a pen.
"Um…yes, I should be," Sherlock replied with a falsely soft voice. "Alistair Martinson – I'm a Foreign Correspondent for the Evening Standard. Is that alright?"
The security guard frowned as he scanned the list before stopping. "ID?"
"Er…" Sherlock patted his pockets down with exaggerated nervousness before pulling out his doctored passport. "Yes. Is that…?"
The man took the card and then reluctantly nodded. "Go right through."
"Thanks very much," Sherlock smiled. He took his card and slipped through the open doorway into the brightness of the lights.
Whoever had designed the building had clearly done so with its English origins in mind. The inside was a grand affair designed to look like an old Etonian library with mahogany-panelled walls and a lavish carpet. Every lamp was on full blast, including the electric chandeliers that hung above, and yet there was a darkness loitering in the corners. All around were people clustered together: important people discussing important things, their groups only broken by waiters handing them small works of edible art on trays. Sherlock relaxed his shoulders and smiled easily at a young woman as she glided past him in an elegant cream dress.
He only had one night; one shot at this. It required precision and delicacy. He had to make sure the timing was right.
He wandered through the throng into the next cavernous room, scanning the crowd for his man. The smell of bureaucracy was all-pervading, as cloying as the expensive perfume in the air. For a moment Sherlock felt a pang of anxiety – he needed to start work as swiftly as possible – but then this was dispelled as his eye fell on a middle-aged man in the corner of the room.
Willoughby was shaking hands with an elderly gentleman, smiling a smile that nearly snapped his thin face in half. He was a man almost utterly devoid of colour: the cloudy glaucoma in his right eye matched his sleek grey suit, dark hair and polished shoes. He had the air about him of a man accustomed to having people come to him rather than he go to them. As Sherlock approached him he turned, still smiling, to look him up and down.
Sherlock smiled faux-nervously, adopting jittery movements and a shy smile. "David Willoughby?"
"The very same," Willoughby nodded, stretching out his hand as if he expected him to kiss it. Sherlock shook it eagerly.
"Alistair Martinson, Evening Standard. It's good to meet you."
The ambassador smiled condescendingly. "Are you reporting on the evening?"
"Yes," Sherlock enthused. "It's been such a triumph, such a triumph for the government. I mean, the whole cell – it's remarkable."
"Well, of course the Prime Minister is thrilled with the results, we all are." Willoughby scratched the back of his neck. "We couldn't have done it without the incredible work effort of our security forces. It only takes one group to cause chaos but it is the work done by ordinary citizens that allows us to combat the threat."
The whole speech sounded rehearsed. It was a perfect opportunity. Sherlock grinned and took a dictophone from his trouser pocket. "Can I quote you on that?"
Willoughby gave a haughty smirk and leant towards the device. "It only takes one group to cause chaos," he said studiously, "But it is the work done by ordinary citizens that allows us to combat the threat."
Sherlock switched off the recorder. "Fantastic, fantastic," he said, fumbling with his pockets. "May we take a walk, somewhere a bit quieter? I imagine my boss would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the operation."
It was just the sort of bait Willoughby required, and like a bloated trout he swelled with pride and nodded his approval. "Of course."
He took Sherlock's shoulder like they were old friends and began to steer him towards an open door which led into one of the embassy's conference rooms, the only distinguishing feature of which was an antique painting of a sheep on one wall. It took a lot of effort for Sherlock not to shudder at the clammy palm sweating on his jacket. Willoughby shut the door behind them, and the warm hum of the guests was extinguished.
Willoughby took a seat at the large wooden table. Sherlock sat opposite, retrieving the dictophone once more and placing it on the table between them.
"So, could you give me a brief explanation as to what threat this cell posed to the country?"
Willoughby shook his hand dismissively. "They were a small rogue band left over from the paramilitary wing of Hezbollah when we had that coup a few years ago. They disliked the agreement we came to and so broke away from the main group. They were planning on staging another coup to further their political gains – acting on basic terror. Had they been allowed to continue the threat would have been significant."
"But the government managed to quell it, of course."
"Yes. We received a tip-off from a source that told us of the group's activities and we were able to shut it down…" Willoughby clapped his hands together, "Like that. Absolutely not a single one left."
Sherlock leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. "Who was the source?"
Willoughby laughed. "If I were to tell you it would greatly compromise his safety."
"Safety? Who would put him in danger; I thought you said there were no members left?"
Willoughby coughed. "Well, what I mean by that is-"
"You mean there are more terrorists out there?"
"Of course not! I cannot hand out the details of an anonymous source…" Willoughby frowned. "What paper did you say you were from again?"
"You know what I think?" Sherlock asked. "I think you know exactly who your source is. I think your source came to you and told you about this supposed group and I think your source offered something you just couldn't refuse. What was it? Power? Influence? Enduring popularity? I think your source offered to give you a group to frame and you accepted not because it was the right thing to do but because you wanted your name splashed across all the newspapers in England. David Willoughby: the man who saved Lebanon. And all you had to do was to agree. A couple of thousand pounds missing, who would notice? Nobody's hurt, after all. A few innocent men rotting away in prison but who cares when it's all for the greater good-"
Willoughby was floundering now, and he stood up sharply. "You have no right," he squawked, rubbing his one good eye with his hand. "No right!"
"Who was your source, Mr. Willoughby?" Sherlock demanded. "I'll bet you don't really know, do you? You never saw him, after all, only ever communicated through contacts. Am I right?"
"This is nonsense. I don't have any idea what you're insinuating."
"What was his name?"
"Your source; what was his name?"
"I don't know!"
Sherlock tapped at the dictophone. "It's all here. As good as a confession and I have more proof. You'll be ripped apart. You won't have any influence, no friends. You'll be nothing. Now tell me, what was his name?"
Shaking, Willoughby collapsed back down into the chair. "Moran," he said weakly. "They said he was called Sebastian Moran."
Sherlock grinned. "Excellent," he said. "Where is he?"
"I don't know-"
"Where is he?"
"I don't know!" Willoughby banged his hands on the table. "He could be anywhere but wherever he is, he's not in Beirut."
Sherlock hummed. "Fine." He picked up the dictophone, switched it off and stuffed it into his pocket. "Well, David, thank you very much for your time. I'd like to tell you that this partnership you have with Moran ends here, if I may."
"It will, of course it will."
Sherlock smiled. "Good. Though I might hang onto this," he tapped his pocket, "Just in case. I don't have much trust for politicians."
Willoughby gaped. "Who are you?"
"Who I am is the least of your concerns right now." Sherlock arched an eyebrow. "Laters."
Then he slipped back through the door, leaving the ambassador behind quivering in the bright lights and the ever-watchful eye of the painted sheep.
He drummed his fingers against the dashboard, feeling the leather of his gloves squish underneath his fingertips as they tapped in time to the music on the stereo. Granted, Vladimir Martynov's Beatitudes might not have been the best soundtrack to this particular escapade, but then again neither was the costume. Anyway, he'd given the woman five and a half minutes, and he needed something to occupy him.
There came a sudden deep crack from inside the Bank of Moscow, contrasting fiercely with the swelling violins of the piece's ending refrain: a Browning, judging by the pitch of the shot.
John had a Browning.
But then Sherlock blinked the thought away. Now was definitely not the time, of all times, to become overwhelmed with sentimentality.
The CD cut out and another minute passed in clean silence. Sherlock ran his fingers over the steering wheel and glanced at his face in the rear-view mirror – or at least, he glanced at the small piece of his face that was not shrouded by the large cloth that covered all save his eyes. He was glad he had kept this outfit from the escapade with The Woman; he had known it would come in useful someday.
In his peripheral vision he saw a sudden jolt of movement and twisted his head to see the glass doors of the banks swinging. The woman was running down the steps, stumbling slightly in her stiletto heels, her eyes covered by large sunglasses. She sauntered up to the car, her briefcase swinging in her left hand, and climbed into the back seat as Sherlock started the engine.
"I think we have about five minutes," she said. Her thick Russian accent bubbled in her throat, rendering her words almost indistinguishable from each other.
"My thoughts precisely," Sherlock agreed, and he pulled the car away from the pavement and began to drive away.
The woman did not speak to him so he studied her in the mirror. She was around twenty eight but already conscious of her age, judging by the frankly alarming shade of red that coloured her hair. The Browning was in the pocket of her leather jacket, a possible advantage. She was suffering from the remnants of a cold, which would make her somewhat slower to react. This could be beneficial. Her posture was strong; she'd been trained in the art of self-defence, but now she seemed extraordinarily relaxed for someone who'd just committed a crime. She hadn't thought not to trust him. First mistake.
There was a rustle near Sherlock's ear. He twisted his head, and plucked a ruble note from where it had been caught in the current of the wind and hovered near his face. He held it between the tips of his middle and index fingers. When he turned around he could see the briefcase on the woman's lap. It hadn't been fastened properly, stuffed too hastily, and the clips had come loose. Notes were prying themselves from inside the case, fluttering manically in the wind from the open window. The woman laughed with childlike abandon as Sherlock wound the window shut.
"How much?" Sherlock asked nonchalantly, letting go of the note. It fell to the floor heavily, like it had tumbled from a building.
The woman did not reply for a moment. Then she said, "Excuse me?" as if it required a great amount of effort.
"The money. How much?"
She shrugged and reached up to play with a large, hooped earring. "Seventy million."
Sherlock turned the car down a corner, heading towards the suburban areas of Moscow. "What do you plan to do with it?"
The woman pursed her lips. "I don't think that's any of your business," she said. "I pay you to drive, not to ask questions."
"My apologies," he replied smoothly, channelling Mycroft.
"Has Kolya put you up to this?" she demanded. "He needn't worry; he'll get his ten percent."
Sherlock remained silent.
"How do you know Kolya, anyway?"
"We have mutual connections," he replied, as he turned the car into a side-street. The woman hadn't yet realised that, instead of driving towards the safe point, he was taking her in the opposite direction. "He said you needed a driver and I owe him a favour."
"Are you being paid for this?"
"Not a ruble."
She smiled, white teeth glistening. "Then why do you do it?"
Sherlock resisted the urge to pull the cloth away from his face, and shrugged. "Kolya said dangerous, and here I am."
The woman hummed, and fell silent. They were deep in the heart of the Lefortovo District now, and headed still further east. Sherlock estimated that he had about four minutes before she realised that they were not heading towards the safe house like they should, but instead were continuing along the path out of the city.
In actuality, it only took two.
The woman suddenly sat bolt upright and said, "Where are we?"
Sherlock took the opportunity to turn into a convenient side street. He switched the engine off, and then made a show of locking it and storing the key in his trouser pocket. Then he eyed the woman in the rear-view mirror.
"What is the meaning of this?" she hissed, and then said something in Russian before switching back to a dialect he could understand. "What, are you trying to rob me? You don't think Kolya will hear of this?"
"Fire him," Sherlock replied, tightening the scarf around his face. "Get someone who won't sell you out to anybody with enough money."
That threw her, and she pulled the Browning from her pocket. She did not point it at him, but held it threateningly on her lap. In response, he opened up the glove compartment and placed the Smith and Wesson that lay there on the dashboard. He said nothing; just let the threat hang in the air until its feet stopped twitching.
"What do you want?" she asked eventually.
"Well, what are your opinions on Putin's re-election, then?"
Sherlock smiled at that. "What can you tell me about Jim Moriarty?"
Her face contorted into a grimace. "He is dead. No good to either of us."
"What about Sebastian Moran?"
"Never heard of him."
"My sources say otherwise." He paused, and then said: "Wouldn't your father like to know where you are, Emilia?"
The woman – Emilia – took off her sunglasses and stared at his reflection with cold eyes. "Moran is dangerous," she said. "He doesn't take kindly to strangers putting their fingers in his business."
"And what is your business?"
Emilia flicked her earring again. "We have a partnership of convenience."
"I give him ten percent of my earnings, and he provides me with everything else – a safe house, connections, guns." She laughed again: that full-throated laugh which, had Sherlock been any other man, would have made his toes curl with longing. "Men are all the same. You give them money and they turn into pigs, right before your eyes."
"Is that why you've taken up with Zora Avilov?"
Emilia's face twisted sharply into pure rage, and her hand tightened around the handle of the gun. "You leave her out of this, svoloch!"
"I meant nothing by it. I was simply making an observation."
"You can take your observations and stick them up your-"
He didn't have time for this. "Where can I find Sebastian Moran?"
"I don't know!" Emilia protested. "I send the money out to a bank in London, but he could be anywhere. Nobody ever sees him; nobody speaks to him. He just provides, no questions asked. But if you're looking for him, you should be careful."
"He has friends in high places."
Sherlock smiled. "Thank you for your time. You've been most helpful to my inquiry."
Her eyes glittered, and she smiled savagely. "Who are you?"
"Well then, next time someone asks me which intelligent, cunning man foiled my perfect robbery; I shall tell them it was Nobody."
Sherlock smiled, and looked down to fish the car keys out of his pocket, only realising his mistake in doing so when he felt the barrel of a gun being pointed at his temple. In the mirror, his eyes made contact with the woman's.
"You're not Nobody, you're Nothing," growled Emilia. "And stay away from Zora."
She raised the gun up, and brought it down, and then there was only darkness.
When he woke up again, he was lying on the roadside in the thickening darkness. The car was gone, as was Emilia and his wallet. He pulled the cloth away from his face and let it drop to the floor. A low groan rumbled in his throat as he wiped away the trickle of dried blood on his cheek. He knew he should probably have taken himself to a hospital – John would have told him to do so – but instead he stumbled off into the night.
A week later, Sherlock found himself back in Paris. He was on the Metro when the headline of a discarded English tabloid caught his eye. "Genius Detective's Name Cleared," it said, and there was a blurry photograph of Kitty Reilly being taken into custody. He stopped, but didn't pick it up. He already knew that there would be nothing: no explosive declarations of loyalty or some shocking new piece of evidence. There would just be a quiet series of admittances from a few senior ranking policemen, prompted by a name that wouldn't even be in print.
He thought it was probably time to go back to Whitstable.